Irish predominance at Cheltenham Festival: will the Elliott scandal turn the tide?

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In the 2020 edition of the Cheltenham Festival, Irish-trained horses won 17 of the 28 races. Absolutely not an exception, since Ireland got the same number of winners in 2018 and even two more – 19 winners – in 2017. In February 2021, Irish commentators were running wild with their forecasts for the upcoming Festival  “Ireland has maybe the favourite in 22 of the 28 races which is outrageous. But I wonder is it due to how we haven’t seen the best of the rest yet”, Paddy Powers was quoted as declaring. Take a look at the best horse racing betting sites 2021 and see how Irish stables fare.

Then came Gordon Elliott’s nefarious “moment of folly,” when he had the fatal inspiration to lift two fingers in a V sign while sitting on a dead horse while someone was taking a photo of him. The racing world fell silent in utter disbelief and shock when the disgraceful image appeared on social media on the last weekend of February. Before the week was over, Elliott was banned from racing for the next six months, following a prompt IHRB investigation and sanction followed by a twin sanction of the British Horseracing Authority.

His disgrace was nothing short of an earthquake, a mere two weeks from the start of the four-day event in Prestbury Park, where he was a great favorite. Elliott could not yet boast the 72 winners of the most successful trainer in Festival history, Willie Mullins, but he sat on the throne twice, in 2017 and 2018. In 2019 he came out ex aequo just with Mullins, when each saddled seven winners. The same happened in 2020, when they also had seven seconds each, but Mullins claimed the title by six thirds to four.

Elliott’s weight in the 2021 Cheltenham Festival goes beyond his personal “race” with Mullins, though. A more dramatic reason why his suspensions sent shockwaves through the whole horseracing market is the vertical fall of Irish presence in the Festival. Handicap entries from across the sea are at their lowest level since 2014 with a total of 219, which means a reduction of 96 (-30%) from the record 315 last year. The problem is that Gordon Elliott accounted for more than a quarter of the total, with 59 entries.

A swift decision to transfer the license to Denise “Sneezy” Foster, an experienced trainer, was not enough to prevent a heavy blow to Elliott’s Cullentra Stables: they lost the Festival favorite, the unbeaten superstar Envoi Allen. Cheveley Park Stud hastened to remove the champion from Elliott’s yard and sent him to Henry de Bromhead, another strong Irish trainer at Cheltenham.  Envoi Allen was one of eight horses that Cheveley Park Stud removed from Elliott’s care, entrusting them to de Bromhead and Mullins.

Will the stain on Elliott’s honor tarnish the Prestbury Cup too? This particular Irish-British competition within the Cheltenham Festival was established after the Irish winners for the first time surpassed the British in number in the 2013 edition. The British fought back in 2014 and 2015. After that, there was a succession of Irish victories, interrupted only by a 14-14 result in 2019. Irish enthusiasm has now taken a bad beating. The lesson that will stay is about the dire consequences of a moment of unexcusable human arrogance.